- Le Château: The Lives of Prisoners in Rwanda
Le Château is a brave book, providing a rare and astonishingly detailed glimpse inside Rwandan prisons. Each chapter covers a specific aspect of prison life, such as religion, leisure, justice, and prisoner families. Throughout, Tertsakian provides excerpts from the two hundred interviews she and her team conducted in five prisons. The voices of prisoners evince a range of emotions, personalities, and coping strategies.
The book does not rely on statistics to tell its story, though the numbers are bleak. Following the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s takeover of the country in 1994, the prisons filled quickly, exceeding their capacity many times over. Because the civil war and genocide had decimated the judicial system, the new government had no way to “sift” the guilty from the innocent (351). The result was not only an explosion in the prison population, but also a humanitarian disaster. Soldiers, who regularly beat prisoners and visitors alike, ran the prisons until civilians took over in 1995–96. So harsh were the conditions in the first years after the war that many prisoners remembered the exact day when the Red Cross arrived to provide soap and other essentials, which it continued to do until 2004.
Tertsakian’s observations of relational life are equally illuminating. Prisoners have meticulously re-created the same hierarchies of power and status that condition life on the outside. Prisoners quite literally run the prisoners. [End Page 196] A “capita general” working with a team of subordinates keeps order. It is these “big men” who also grant favors, extort from prisoners, and skim off every transaction they can. As in the outside world, everything inside the prison can be bought and sold, including living space, assignments on work teams, places in line for toilets and showers, and confessions—both their content and authorship. As one female prisoner remarked, “Genocide is a kind of business” (411).
Perversities of prison life also abound. Prisoners who confess to having participated in the genocide receive special treatment and have a chance at release while those who maintain their innocence live as second-class denizens and face an indefinite period of confinement.
Despite these ruthless conditions, there is remarkably little physical violence in the prisons, although there is rape and sexual abuse, mostly of minors who are often housed in the same buildings as adults. Escapes are also rare, despite the small number of guards, and suicide is unheard of, even among the most depressed. There are even pockets of beauty inside. Prisoners tend gardens. They sing in church choirs, perform plays, and write poetry. They help one another with blankets and food. Yet the harshness of prison life never abates, particularly in the way that prospects for release are dangled over prisoners’ heads through pressures to confess and a system of bribes that permeates the judicial system within and without the prison walls.
Indeed, it is the chapters on freedom that reveal the indelible mark that prison leaves on these men and women. Even after being released, former prisoners live in constant fear of being rearrested. This fear is wellfounded, as the majority of releases have been provisional, rearrests are commonplace, and survivor organizations, such as Ibuka, have played a key role in deciding who gets released and more important, who does not. Tertsakian’s book is empirically, not theoretically, oriented, but its analysis is far from superficial.
Tertsakian is not naïve about her subjects. She notes, for example, that few of the confessed prisoners she interviewed showed any regret over the crimes they committed. Indeed, most insist they did nothing but be part of a group that killed. A few, however, do show true emotion.
Some readers might object to the extent to which Le Château humanizes the prisoners, given the fact that many are, no doubt, guilty of far more than they confessed to. But even here, Tertsakian provides an answer. In the opening pages of her book she notes that “almost every Rwandan has...